Historical Backstory to Those Fleeing Syrians

T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), second from right, with Bedouin and Circassian chiefs on the Aerodrome at Amman, 1921.  Photo credit: Matson Collection / Library of Congress
Reading Time: 10 minutes

News coming out of the Middle East is nearly always bad — so bad, it’s like a road accident: You just want to look away and keep on going. There’s nothing you can do.

How did it all come to this? Keep reading. Below is an excerpt from Syria Burning by Charles Glass.

This book is about much more than Syria or the Middle East. It may be what the poet William Blake meant when he wrote, “To see a world in a grain of sand.”

Or a drop of oil.

***

WhoWhatWhy introduction by Milicent Cranor

Below are excerpts from Chapter 2, “With Friends Like These.”

To read the first chapter of this book, “Arab Spring, Syrian Winter,” please go here.

From the book’s “About the Author” section:

Charles Glass is an author, journalist and broadcaster, who specializes in the Middle East. He made headlines when taken hostage for 62 days in Lebanon by Shi’a militants in 1987 while writing a book during his time as ABC’s News’ chief Middle East correspondent. He writes regularly for the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, the London Review of Books and The Spectator. He is the author of Tribes with Flags, Money for Old Rope, The Tribes Triumphant, The Northern Front, Americans in Paris, and Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II. You can purchase the book here.

Note: These excerpts have been compressed and edited.

With Friends Like These

Syrians used to tell a joke about a survey that asked people of different nationalities, “What is your opinion of eating meat?” This was during the Cold War, so people in Poland answered, “What do you mean by ‘meat’?” In Ethiopia, the response was, “What do you mean by ‘eating’?”

But in Syria, the universal response was, “What do you mean by ‘what is your opinion’?”

Nothing much has changed, as Syrians confront the choice between a government they never voted for and a violent opposition dependent on foreign powers….

On the rare occasions when Syrians have been asked their opinion, their preferences were ignored. The most famous instance was in 1919, when Dr. Henry Churchill King and Charles R. Crane led a commission to assess what type of government the Arabs of the former Ottoman Empire desired. The British and French, having determined the region’s fate in their secret agreement of 1916, refused to participate.

So the Americans — in that innocent era before the discovery of oil in Arabia made them as avaricious as their imperial predecessors — set out on their own.

From June 10 to July 21, 1919, the commission traveled from one end of Greater Syria to another, received 1,863 petitions. and met 442 delegations from most ethnic and sectarian groups. More than 80 percent of the petitioners demanded full independence and the continued unity of Syria — which then comprised today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the areas that became Israel and Turkish Hatay (or Alexandretta).

The programs presented to the commission by all the Muslims and about two-thirds of the Christians of Syria were nationalistic; that is to say, they called for a United Syria under a democratic constitution, making no distinctions on the basis of religion.

In response to repeated questions in many places, it was steadily affirmed by the Muslims that they had no desire whatever for Muslim privilege in the government, nor for political union with the Arabs of the Hejaz (now western Saudi Arabia) — whom they felt to be in another state of civilization.

Most inhabitants favored a constitutional monarchy under the Emir Feisal, who had led the Arab insurrection against the Ottomans. A year earlier, however, Feisal had learned from British General Edmund Allenby that his struggle, in which he had raised a force of nearly 30,000 men from all parts of Syria, had been futile. T. E. Lawrence was present at the meeting on October 3, 1918, in newly conquered Damascus and later wrote of it in Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

Allenby gave me a telegram from the Foreign Office, recognizing to the Arabs the status of belligerents; and told me to translate it to the Emir: but none of us knew what it meant in English, let alone in Arabic: and Feisal, smiling through the tears which the welcome of his people had forced from him, put it aside to thank the Commander-in-Chief for the trust which had made him and his movement.”

More significantly, although Lawrence did not mention it in Seven Pillars, Allenby told Feisal that France would assume the government of Syria. The Arabs had risked their lives not for freedom but for British and French domination.

The Alawite foothold in the armed forces was one legacy of that brutal 25 years of colonial rule, an inheritance that lies at the root of Syria’s present crisis. The Alawites, whose daughters were mistreated as household servants in Damascus until recently, helped the French to crush nationalist rebellions in the 1920s.

On July 24, 1920, French troops crossed from Beirut over Mount Lebanon to the Maysaloun Pass and defeated the cavalry of General Yusuf al-Azmeh. They expelled Feisal and imposed the so-called Mandate over little Syria and Greater Lebanon. Al Azmeh, the brave former Ottoman general who had been Feisal’s minister of defense, gave his life to save the country from foreign domination, as did 1,200 Arab fighters. It was too late. Damascus fell to France….

Damascus was always at the heart of the rejection of disunity and foreign rule. In Damascus, wrote French Général Andréa in La Révolte Druze et l’Insurrection de Damas, 1925–1926, “the Arab heart beats more strongly than anywhere else.”

Damascus was the capital of the first Arab empire, the Omayyad, in the seventh century. When its Sunni legions completed their conquest of Syria, they turned their might on Persia, a precedent not lost on the Shiite rulers of contemporary Iran….

On August 7, 1920, The Times reminded its readers that Feisal’s army had been in effect an adjunct of the British army during the war:

The Arab army was equipped from the stores of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Cairo, and it was accompanied in the field by a small staff of British specialists in irregular war, who acted as advisers and as liaison between Feisal and Allenby.

As a British tool, Feisal’s Arab army had to accept British occupation of Transjordan and Palestine, and French dominion in Syria and Lebanon.

The Alawites Inherit Syria

France, having seized Syria, proceeded to divide it into four mini-states. Most Sunnis and Christians were Arab nationalists opposed to French rule. They refused to serve in the Troupes Speciales du Levant that became the Syrian Army, so the French recruited impoverished Alawite peasants.

The Alawite foothold in the armed forces was one legacy of that brutal 25 years of colonial rule, an inheritance that lies at the root of Syria’s present crisis. The Alawites, whose daughters were mistreated as household servants in Damascus until recently, helped the French to crush nationalist rebellions in the 1920s.

When the CIA sponsored the army coup that destroyed Syria’s parliamentary democracy in 1949, the way was open for Alawite officers (whose survival over centuries of religious intolerance had required them to be master conspirators) to come to the fore in 1966.

When Bashar al Assad said that “Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in our region on different issues for decades,” he was not, then, far off the mark. A country that, with France, imposed and modified the borders it drew across Ottoman Syria [during and after World War I], Britain carries historic baggage. A country that has done nothing since June 1967 to oppose Israel’s occupation and annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights, Britain has a way to go to prove its bona fides to a skeptical Syrian audience. And as a country that, from the current rebellion’s outset, predicted and sought the imminent downfall of the Damascus regime, Britain may find it hard to play the role of honest broker.

In 2012, a new armed force, calling itself the Free Syrian Army, seized many Syrian towns and parts of its main cities. Like Feisal’s volunteers, its members were a mixture of idealists and opportunists.

There were other similarities: they received weapons, training and commands from outsiders; they had no idea what demands the foreign powers — among them the old imperialists Britain and France, as well as the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — would make of them if they should seize power in Damascus; and they did not know where their insurrection would lead the country.

2Syria has become the venue of what he called “a proxy war” or wars: the United States versus Russia; the Sunni theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar against the Shiite theocrats of Iran; and Turkey versus Arab nationalists over the attempted restoration of Turkey’s pre–World War I dominance.

Today Syrians are surrounded by more new-found friends than a lottery winner. Not since the old Soviet Union signed all those “treaties of friendship” with everyone from Finland to Afghanistan has one country had so many new pals.

On the one side, Russia and Iran have supplied weapons, ammunition, and diplomatic cover for President Assad. On the other, there is the Group of Friends of the Syrian People, a collection of 107 countries and organizations modeled on the Friends of Libya who cheer-led NATO’s air war in that country.

Where, you might ask, have these friends been hiding for the past 50 years? What were they doing in 1967 when Israel seized the Syrian Golan? What support did they send to more than 100,000 Syrian citizens when Israel demolished their villages and expelled them from their homes? What was their reaction to Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan in 1981? Have they taken a stand against the 30 settlements that Israel planted on property stolen from Syrians? Are they calling for sanctions against Israel until it withdraws from Syrian territory, dismantles its settlements and permits Syria’s Golan citizens to return home? Would it be churlish to suggest that Syria’s friends want something from Syria for themselves?

You know the answers. So do the Syrians.

George W. Bush was eyeing Syria when he left the White House, and, as in so much else, the Obama administration has taken the policy further. On March 5, 2007, Seymour Hersh, whose American intelligence sources are second to none, wrote in The New Yorker:

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the administration has co-operated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

When Syria erupted in 2011, the US and Russia turned up with flamethrowers.

Four years on, a conflict that has screamed from the outset for a diplomatic settlement perpetuates itself with outside help, for outside interests. External support has not merely escalated the killing but, mirroring fratricidal struggles from Spain in 1936 to Yugoslavia in 1992, made it ever more personal and vicious. No hands are clean. No one, apart from the undertaker, is winning. Yet it goes on and on with each side certain of the justice of its cause.

A Proxy War

Veteran Moroccan diplomat Mokhtar Lamani, who became the UN–Arab League representative on the ground in Syria in September 2012 and resigned two years later in frustration, has engaged with rebels and government officials across Syria. Comparing Syria to Iraq, where he served as Arab League representative from 2000 to 2007, Lamani said, “It’s even worse here.” Syria has become the venue of what he called “a proxy war” or wars: the United States versus Russia; the Sunni theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar against the Shiite theocrats of Iran; and Turkey versus Arab nationalists over the attempted restoration of Turkey’s pre–World War I dominance.

The original demands for reform and justice of the peaceful protesters at the start of the uprising in 2011 are as forgotten as, two years and millions of deaths into the Great War, was Austria-Hungary’s July 23, 1914, ultimatum to Serbia.

The CIA has been arming and guiding gunmen near the Turkish border, as it once did anti-Sandinista Contras along the Honduran-Nicaraguan frontier. To avoid congressional scrutiny as it did in Nicaragua, the US turned again to Saudi Arabia. The British have run anti-Syrian government operations from Lebanon. France, my sources say, has played a similar role from both Turkey and Lebanon. Russia and Turkey still vie for influence in a country whose citizens hate them both.

If Syria’s friends set out to destroy the country, they have done well. The war has reached the stage at which many on both sides no longer regard the others as human, let alone as citizens of a country in which all must coexist. Neighbor has turned against neighbor. People who thought of themselves in 2010 as Syrians have become Sunnis, Druze, Christians, or Alawites.

The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side. The population that survives the violence is contending with famine, disease, and exposure to the extremes of Syria’s summers and winters.

While Syrians do most of the fighting and dying, both sides have welcomed foreigners into their ranks. Iranians and Lebanese Shiites reinforce the government army, while Sunni jihadists from more than 40 countries have become the revolt’s shock troops. The latter are less concerned with majoritarian democracy than with deposing a president whose primary offenses they consider to be his membership in an Islamic sect, the Alawites, that they condemn as apostate, and his alliance with Shiite Iran. A Red Cross worker who, like Lamani, has worked on both sides of the barricades, said, “If there are secularist rebels, I haven’t met them.”

For outsiders whose own countries will not be the chessboard on which this game is played, war makes more political capital than the more subtle and difficult route of negotiation and compromise.

Yet which is more likely to preserve Syria, its secularism, its economy, and the healthy relations among its communities — civil war, as in Spain, Lebanon and Yugoslavia, or the example of Nelson Mandela meeting the enforcers of apartheid? When the British government and the Irish Republican Army swallowed pride and distaste to negotiate seriously, rather than win outright, the war in Northern Ireland ended.

The record of foreign military intervention is, to put it mildly, less impressive. Dissidents, journalists, and mullahs who call for foreign forces to fight in Syria have only to look next door to Lebanon. During its long war, every foreign power that got involved burned its fingers and escalated violence for the Lebanese.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) ostensibly responded to an appeal from Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims for help in obtaining equality with the Christians. When the PLO left in 1982, their movement was badly wounded and even the Sunnis were glad to see it go.

Syria intervened at various stages of the war on behalf of the Christians, the Palestinians, and the Shiites. Its departure in April 2005 was welcomed by the vast majority of Lebanese.

Israel came in 1982 promising to help the Christians. When it left in 2000, not even the Christians had a good word for them.

As for the US’s brief encounter with Lebanon in 1982-83, the less said, the better. Do the families of the 241 American service personnel killed in the suicide bombing of October 23, 1983, believe the price was worth paying?

Next:      Excerpt from Syria Burning: The Brutal Rise of ISIS

Related front page panorama photo credit: Charles Glass, Map of Middle East (W123 / Wikimedia), AQMI Flag (Yo / Wikimedia), Presidents of Syria (Wikimedia)

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